Copenhagen

Heisenberg and Bohr's friendship is divided by WW2 and the nuclear race in this drama by Michael Frayn.

Andrew Wiles Building, Tue 2 September - Sat 6 September 2014

Maths Institute, Thu 12th February - Sat 14th February 2015


February 13, 2015

The two male protagonists in Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen are Niels Bohr, famous among other things for his work on quantum physics and his theory of complementarity, and Werner Heisenberg, famous among other things for his work on quantum mechanics and his uncertainty principle. Both were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Equally important in this play is Bohr’s wife Margrethe. In the 1920s Heisenberg arrived from a broken Germany to work under Bohr in Copenhagen; in 1941 he came back to German-occupied Copenhagen for a conference, but also to speak to Bohr.

The subtitle of this play is Bohr, Heisenberg and the Uncertainty of History: this play explores the different possibilities of what might have taken place that evening and, while doing so, slowly revealing the personalities and the relationships of the three people involved. There is no record of the conversation they had, although there has been much speculation and some comments from the two men themselves. Bohr was a father figure to Heisenberg and much revered by Heisenberg and others, but maybe they also rowed and argued as father and son can do – about physics of course. Well, mainly about physics and about nuclear fission and the possibility of using it to make a bomb and about how well they worked together, or didn’t as the case may be. There are personal matters which are touched upon throughout the play – the death of one of the Bohr children; ‘trouble’ back in Germany for Heisenberg. So why did he come? Did he want to boast? Did he want to discuss the morality of building a weapon of mass destruction? In the end was he a sinner or a saint, or somewhere in between like most of us? Certainly, he worked inside Germany during WWII, but did he have some hand in placing someone in the German embassy in Denmark who saved thousands of Jews, including the half-Jewish Bohr? In 1941 he was on the winning side and powerful, yet it was Bohr who, having escaped to the States, ended up working on the atomic bomb. If you are a physicist, you will appreciate the research that has gone into this play; if like me you are not a physicist, you can enjoy the play for its portrayal of the dilemmas that people have faced down the ages in times of crisis.

This is a stark, wordy play: a few chairs are the only props and the play stands or falls on the acting. This production definitely stands. Alexander Rain is an outstanding Heisenberg, making us laugh, making us squirm, moving us to tears as he talks about his broken country after the war. Michael Taylor’s Bohr seems calm on the surface but perhaps he was actually quite tyrannical. Through it all, Katherine Jones’ Margrethe is the voice of reason and truth, cutting through the verbiage and delivering home truths in a calm, sometimes icy, always composed manner. This production, playing appropriately at the Mathematical Institute, is an absolute gem.

September 3, 2014
ElevenOne Theatre's production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen is simply brilliant.  It is a fascinating play about science, about people, and about morality and culpability, and the three-strong cast more than do it justice.
 
The play's subject is the relationship between two renowned nuclear physicists, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who were both involved in developing the atom bomb but who ended up on opposing sides in the second world war.  Heisenberg headed up the German research team and Bohr, a Danish jew, had a hand in the American project.  Before the war they had worked together extensively, Bohr a father figure to Heisenberg. During the German occupation of Denmark, however, Heisenberg paid a visit to his former mentor in Copenhagen and they had an argument which destroyed their friendship.  Frayn's play explores the unanswered question: Why did Heisenberg visit Bohr in September 1941?
 
Copenhagen begins with a slightly clunky but useful explanation of who the characters are, giving enough background to make sense of what is to come, as Bohr, Heisenberg, and Bohr's wife Margrethe, all long dead, reconvene and relive the visit, trying to understand it.  Exposition over, the play starts to gather speed and momentum until it is hurtling down complex paths, not a word wasted along the tense and spellbinding journey.
 
Niels Bohr always desired to be able to explain his theories in plain language, often using Margrethe as a sounding-board, and within the play this serves as a useful device; I have no background in science, but I was able to understand everything necessary to follow the plot, and I learned a lot about the Copenhagen Interpretation too.
 
I was entranced by the performances of all three actors.  Margrethe, anxious and frustrated, loving and furious, is a marvellously intelligent and three-dimensional character, played by Katherine Jones with warmth and spontaneity.  Niels Bohr's many moods - excited intellectual, loving husband, respected mentor - are all portrayed with great insight by Michael Taylor.  Heisenberg, a vain and lofty figure, is made human and vulnerable by Alexander Rain.  Only the occasional mispronunciation of a word or name broke the spell and tore my focus from the story, but even then only for a moment. Most wonderful to witness were the beautifully crafted relationships between the characters: marital tenderness, the collaborative tussle of great minds, the traces of betrayal and frustration.  
 
Copenhagen tells an enormous story of the interaction between science and politics, but it also revels in the details of atoms and of individuals' lived experiences of fear, loss, and intellectual triumph.  It is an intelligent play which commands one's whole attention and which is written and performed here with great respect for its audience.

Can not stop talking about Copenhagen - stimulating, informative and moving.

I do hope that ElevenOne Theatre will produce more gripping dramas next year.

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